Scientists moved one step closer to sending human inhabitants to live and work in deep space, on the moon or on Mars. NASA scientists in association with scientists from the University of Arizona have developed an inflatable, deployable greenhouse that can be pitched on the lunar or Martian surface and can be used to support plant and crop production for nutrition, air renewal, water recycling and waste recycling. The greenhouse is actually a bio-regenerative life support system. Named the Prototype Lunar/Mars Greenhouse project, the greenhouse would give astronauts, taking part in extensive space missions, access to fresh, healthy food for as much time as they want.
For long, NASA scientists have been grappling with the idea of sending a bunch of pioneers to live on Mars or on the Moon, for extended periods of time, in order to learn more about these celestial beings and to explore the options of making them inhabitable for mankind someday. One of the roadblocks to such missions is how to provide a year’s worth or more of fresh food to the astronauts living and working up there.
As life on Mars seems more probable by the day, and with distinct discoveries of there being sources of water on Mars or on the moon, scientists have come up with an exciting idea to harness that water to grow fresh food and produce oxygen for long-term space missions to these places.
The cylindrical greenhouse is 18 ft. in length and 8 ft. in diameter. According to the scientists, the system will use the carbon dioxide exhaled by the astronauts for the greenhouse, while redirecting the oxygen the plants produce into the human settlement for the astronauts’ use. Oxygenated water fortified with vital plant nutrients will be pumped across the plants’ root zone. Any excess water will be collected and stored for further use.
To begin with, the astronauts will haul water from Earth for initial use. Gradually, however, lunar or Martian water sources will have to be found and harnessed for human use. While plants on Earth grow under sunlight, the scientists have tested hybrid plant varieties that have grown successfully under electric LED lighting, thus solving the problem of sunlight which is crucial to plants’ growth.
Another hurdle that stands in the way of success with the system is that of cosmic radiation. In order to protect the greenhouse units from radiation in space, the researchers plan to bury the system under the surface soil or regolith, and provide specialized lighting to it.
The greenhouses will be built in various dimensions according to the type of plants that the astronauts will want to cultivate.
Dr. Gene Giacomelli, director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Centre at the University of Arizona explains, “We’re mimicking what the plants would have if they were on Earth and make use of these processes for life support. The entire system of the lunar greenhouse does represent, in a small way, the biological systems that are here on Earth.”
The success of the mission depends on determining what plants, seeds or other materials should be taken along to make the system work on the Moon or Mars. As NASA scientists said, “Learning what to take and what to gather on site will be crucial for living on distant locations.”
In-situ resource utilisation, or ISRU, the practise of making best use of resources available on site, will determine how successful mankind will be in this ambitious experiment, and whether we will be able to colonise Mars after all!